82: Dr. Nanny

82: Dr. Nanny

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Empowered Woman

Dr. Nanny

It takes courage to examine your life and to decide that there are things you would like to change, and it takes even more courage to do something about it.

~Sue Hadfield, Change One Thing!

My dream was to earn my doctorate at St. John’s University in Queens, New York, where my father was a professor. But during a visit to the United States Military Academy during my junior year in college, I was escorted around the post by a handsome “cow,” a cadet in his junior year at West Point. Soon after, my doctoral dreams took a detour.

After graduating from college, my cadet and I married. For the next thirty-two years, we raised our five children. I stayed at home with the kids and wrote nonfiction books for young adults, Chicken Soup for the Soul stories, and features for my local newspaper. Those were glorious times.

When my two youngest were in high school, my oldest daughter chose to pursue her doctorate in psychology. Additionally, my niece, my college roommate, and my brother-in-law were all engaged in doctoral studies. I was so proud of them, but I also felt envious. I became determined to go back to school.

I searched the Internet and found the perfect Ph.D. program for me. It was a combination of classes in writing, literature, and teaching. Actually, I wasn’t planning to teach, but the other courses would serve me well. The university was a two-hour drive away in New York City, which presented a worrisome obstacle to me because I suffer from panic disorder.

When I was in eighth grade, I spent an entire month in my home, unable to leave, paralyzed by fears. With the help of a talented psychologist, I learned relaxation and visualization techniques that helped me cope with my panic attacks. He taught me to break activities into small bits and deal with them a little at a time. “Just concentrate on this moment,” he told me. “Don’t worry about the future, about the ‘what-ifs.’ ” I soon got back to school and back to life. Even though I now know how to handle my panic, I still experience anxiety daily.

I took a deep breath and broke my doctoral goals into little, manageable pieces. I wrote my admissions essay and gathered recommendation letters. I took my Graduate Record Examination — twice. Remember, I hadn’t done geometry in over thirty years. When my acceptance e-mail arrived, I danced around the kitchen island. Then I signed up for my courses.

Each day of class, I gathered my courage anew and jumped into the car. I found myself enjoying the ride, singing aloud to the songs on the radio. I felt like a cosmopolitan woman as I crossed the city bridges and saw the Empire State Building in the background. At fifty-two, I was the oldest in the classroom, and a generational divide sometimes appeared. One afternoon, we took a tour of the microfilm area of the university library. One of my fellow students noted a tall wooden cabinet recessed into the wall. “I wonder what that is,” she said to me.

“It’s a telephone booth,” I told her with a smile.

Despite some generational differences, my youthful colleagues challenged and energized me with their intellects. One time, a young man who was writing a project about teaching pedagogy asked if I could suggest a theorist to research. “You should check out Bell Evans,” I told him sagely. Immediately, he plugged the name into his iPhone and thanked me profusely.

On the drive home, I felt amazed at how quickly the theorist’s name had sprung from my middle-aged brain. I congratulated myself for taking the young man under my wing. Then I realized that Bell & Evans was the brand name of my favorite chicken breasts.

Over those years, my classmates — most of them younger than my two oldest daughters — became my friends. We were facing this doctoral marathon together. I made it through my required classes, six months of studying for my comprehensives, and the oral comprehensive exam.

Suddenly, my goal was diverted again. I underwent coronary artery double bypass surgery. My cardiac surgeon said I had to skip a semester to recover. For those months, I attended rehab and refreshed my knowledge of French for the translation exam.

When I returned to school, I was required to teach writing and literature for two semesters. I had not held a job outside the home since I was a camp counselor as a teen. Could I meet the responsibility? After all those years of writing silently in my home, would my students be taught by a mime? Class by class, I realized that I loved my students and enjoyed being an educator. The students even laughed at my jokes. An unexpected career opened before me.

Finally, I researched, wrote, and defended my dissertation, “ ‘What’s So Funny?’ An Analysis of James Thurber’s Humorous Writing.” At St. John’s University in Queens, New York, on May 19, 2016, my mentor slipped the doctoral hood over my head. Yes, after the deferral of my dream, I received my Ph.D. from the very university where my father had taught and I had hoped to earn my doctorate thirty-six years earlier.

My husband and children sat in the audience to watch me graduate, with the exception of my oldest daughter, who had recently given birth to our first grandson. That evening, I was a doctor and a grandmother; I was Dr. Nanny. My next challenge would be to fly to Florida to hug that grandbaby. During my semester break from teaching at Marist College and The Culinary Institute of America, I would be on a flight. Anxiety had kept me from flying for thirty-four years, but now I had confidence that if I took the next adventure a little at a time, I could do that, too.

~Marie-Therese Miller

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